Commentary

Celtics just can't keep up

They again show their age in rout by athletic Grizzlies

Updated: March 11, 2010, 10:57 AM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Michael Finley came here because he wanted a shot at another championship ring? So far, he has witnessed three games: one outright abomination, one close defeat and one shoulda-been-a-loss. He has to be thinking, of all the gym joints in all the world, I walked into this one?

In a way, though, the 37-year-old Finley personifies his new team. He was deemed to be done by the San Antonio Spurs, a team that, by the way, is having its own troubles in the West. So San Antonio did the dignified Finley right and allowed him to leave and sign with, you know, a team with a real shot.

"We're just happy he didn't go to Dallas," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

[+] EnlargeRudy Gay and Paul Pierce
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty ImagesMemphis' Rudy Gay moves past Paul Pierce, who has been slowed by several injuries this season.

Finley picked Boston. And right now, he has to be thinking to himself, well, OK, it still beats New Jersey.

But if he believes he's any closer to a ring, a game like Wednesday night has got to have him rethinking his exit strategy from San Antonio. The Celtics were embarrassed by a young, athletic, better-than-you-think Memphis team. A confluence of events -- young vs. old, back-to-back situation vs. night off, energy vs. inertia, optimism vs. helplessness -- led to a 111-91 annihilation at TD Garden. It matched Boston's most lopsided loss of the season (by the way, both have come at home).

A game like this one has to have Celtics fans cringing at the prospect of a first-round matchup against any younger, quicker team. (OK, that's pretty much the rest of the NBA, but if I'm coach Doc Rivers, I'm pulling for a Toronto-Boston series. After that, all bets are off.) The Celtics simply couldn't, or wouldn't, stay with the Grizzlies, allowing far too many layups, dunks and uncontested jumpers. The Grizzlies shot 54 percent from the field and won by 20 on the Celtics' home floor.

Asked about watching his team of elders try to compete against the whippets from the Western Conference, Rivers said it was difficult "when you give them spirit." That's code for not playing defense. "There's no doubt about that," Rivers continued. "We're not going to get any quicker, and when you give an athletic team that's skilled, when you give them that confidence, with the way we're constructed, it makes it difficult."

It also makes it difficult when the two players on whom you most depend, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, are mere shells of themselves right now. The company line is that they will get better as the season winds down and the playoffs begin. Watching them play night in and night out, particularly Garnett, one wonders how that is ever going to be the case.

KG has been back for almost two months and still looks hobbled. Guys blow past him -- and over him -- with impunity. In Milwaukee on Tuesday night, he bit on an upfake from Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, came down on his back and tumbled to the ground as Ilyasova made the basket (and the free throw). You can be sure a photo of that play is on every storefront in Istanbul.

Garnett has to be right for it all to work. It may be too severe to say he has irretrievably broken down, but he looks old and tired and, well, broken down out there. Pierce gets a little slack because he is still working his way back from his most recent injury (sprained right thumb).

Rivers is correct when he says the Celtics were constructed in a specific way. But the construction process was based on a certain premise, namely, that the foundation was solid. It was at one point. It no longer is. The Celtics don't rebound. They lose at home (12 losses already, matching the total from the past two seasons combined). They defend in spurts. Garnett isn't whole.

It is an article of faith that veteran teams win in the NBA. For all the joie de vivre the young Grizzlies displayed, they are unlikely to make the playoffs in the cutthroat Western Conference. The veteran-laden Celtics, meanwhile, are going to the playoffs, in all likelihood as the Atlantic Division champion for the third straight year.

Finley could have gotten a playoff check if he had elected to stay in San Antonio. He liked his chances better in Boston. Right now, it looks like he took a lateral step at best.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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